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Principal’s Criminal Liability

15 January, 2016 - 09:35

As a general proposition, a principal will not be held liable for an agent’s unauthorized criminal acts if the crimes are those requiring specific intent. Thus a department store proprietor who tells his chief buyer to get the “best deal possible” on next fall’s fashions is not liable if the buyer steals clothes from the manufacturer. A principal will, however, be liable if the principal directed, approved, or participated in the crime. Cases here involve, for example, a corporate principal’s liability for agents’ activity in antitrust violations—price-fixing is one such violation.

There is a narrow exception to the broad policy of immunity. Courts have ruled that under certain regulatory statutes and regulations, an agent’s criminality may be imputed to the principal, just as civil liability is imputed under Dramshop Acts. These include pure food and drug acts, speeding ordinances, building regulations, child labor rules, and minimum wage and maximum hour legislation. Misdemeanor criminal liability may be imposed upon corporations and individual employees for the sale or shipment of adulterated food in interstate commerce, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant may have had no actual knowledge that the food was adulterated at the time the sale or shipment was made.


The principal will be liable for the employee’s torts in two circumstances: first, if the principal was directly responsible, as in hiring a person the principal knew or should have known was incompetent or dangerous; second, if the employee committed the tort in the scope of business for the principal. This is the master-servant doctrine or respondeat superior. It imposes vicarious liability on the employer: the master (employer) will be liable if the employee was in the zone of activity creating a risk for the employer (“zone of risk” test), that is—generally—if the employee was where he was supposed to be, when he was supposed to be there, and the incident arose out of the employee’s interest (however perverted) in promoting the employer’s business.

Special cases of vicarious liability arise in several circumstances. For example, the owner of an automobile may be liable for torts committed by one who borrows it, or if it is—even if indirectly—used for family purposes. Parents are, by statute in many states, liable for their children’s torts. Similarly by statute, the sellers and employers of sellers of alcohol or adulterated or short-weight foodstuffs may be liable. The employer of one who commits a crime is not usually liable unless the employer put the employee up to the crime or knew that a crime was being committed. But some prophylactic statutes impose liability on the employer for the employee’s crime—even if the employee had no intention to commit it—as a means to force the employer to prevent such actions.


  1. What is the difference between direct and vicarious employer tort liability?
  2. What is meant by the “zone of risk” test?
  3. Under what circumstances will an employer be liable for intentional torts of the employee?
  4. When will the employer be liable for an employee’s criminal acts?